In May 2009, a year after German filmmaker Wim Wenders released the widely criticised film, Palermo Shooting, the director announced upcoming plans for a new documentary. Reaction was, at best, muted. Wenders' career had stalled; no longer was he consistently displaying the talent shown early on in his life, when the young, daring king of the road movie was universally recognised as a leading light of New German Cinema. Palermo Shooting, despite Wenders' best efforts, was a far cry from the auteur's 1984 opus, Paris, Texas, and the collective assertion was that his new film would flop, too.
Only it didn't. Released in glorious 3D, Wenders' 2011 documentary Pina told the tale of contemporary dance legend Philippina "Pina" Bausch, and was released to critical acclaim (despite undergoing significant structural changes when, two months after the director announced the project, Bausch died). Wenders, in the midst of what critics described as a "third coming", had successfully rescued a regrettably floundering career, and could again stand tall as a celebrated filmmaker.
At least that's how we see it. Wenders, though, has always been rightly unfazed by popular opinion, consistently placing the desire for unhindered experimentation above any need for positive critical reaction. He likes to try new things, basically, and for that reason alone it's difficult to consider him just a filmmaker. Rather, Wenders is a poylmath, who's CV reveals stints as a playwright, an artist, an author and a photographer. While films have been made, so too screenplays have been written, art produced and photographs taken, around 60 of which currently make up Places, Strange and Quiet, a traveling exhibition (it debuted in Brazil) now on show at Hamburg's Deichtor Hallen.
The show's premise is simple. Here is an assemblage of photographs, presented at large- (read huge) scale, taken by the director while on location-hunting trips around the world. In California, Wenders takes in an American family who are in turn taking in a life-size dinosaur replica; in Butte, Montanna, he documents an empty street corner, channeling the evocative loneliness of Edward Hopper; and in the German seaside town of Heiligendamm – a quaint resort nicknamed the "White Town by the Sea" for the classicist white buildings lining its promenade – Wenders shoots a fully armoured policeman, his back to the camera, surveying a group of people (protesters, maybe?) crossing an expansive field sowed with wheat.
Wenders' photographs are cinematic, as you'd expect, but each is filled with silent anxiety. Little action is captured directly, and yet his scenes seem charged with the possibility of an event, likely tragic or melancholic. Strangeness and quietness (especially in places foreign to Wenders) are themes we know the director to grapple with in his films. So too with photography.
"When you travel a lot, and when you love to wander around and get lost, you end up in the strangest spots," Wenders says. "I have a huge attraction to places. Already when I look at a map, the names of mountains, villages, rivers, lakes or landscape formations excite me, as long as I don’t know them and have never been there. I seem to have sharpened my sense of place for things that are out of place. Everybody turns right, because that’s where it’s interesting, I turn left where there is nothing! And sure enough, I soon stand in front of my sort of place. I don’t know, it must be some sort of inbuilt radar that often directs me to places that are strangely quiet, or quietly strange." Places, Strange and Quiet runs at the Deichtor Hallen, Hamburg, until August 19.
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